Why Teachers Stay: A Study of Teacher Retention [Podcast]

Introduction

A recent publication found that 44% of new teachers in public and private schools leave teaching within five years of entering the profession. That’s a staggering number. Nearly half of new teachers quit teaching.

But what about the other half? The half that stay? Today we’re interviewing Suzanne Beasterfield at Idaho State University and she tells us about a study she recently presented at ATE, entitled, “Why We Stay: A Study of Teacher Retention.”

My interview with Suzanne has been one of my favorites for the Teacher Education Podcast. We discussed the themes of her research and the roles of local administrators and teacher prep programs play in teacher retention. It’s an insightful episode. I know you’ll love it. (00:00 – 00:50)

Suzanne Beasterfield Idaho State University

Suzanne Beasterfield

Suzanne, welcome to the Teacher Education Podcast. How are you?

Suzanne Beasterfield: I’m good, thank you. (00:51)

I’m really excited to talk to you today, especially on your work on teacher retention. Looking through your CV, I noticed that you were a public school teacher for about four to five years in Utah. What drew you to pursue a professional career in higher education? (00:52 – 01:08)

Suzanne Beasterfield: I taught in St. George, Utah, Pine View High School and I taught English and Japanese. And the English department there at the time that I taught were just fantastic people, so supportive and helpful and nurturing of new teachers. And I didn’t realize how good I had that until I started talking to other teachers that were feeling like they were kind of floundering and out there. And I thought, helping other teachers and helping to make them successful could be something that’s really rewarding. And I think that was my first interest in teacher preparation. (01:09 – 01:42)

I taught in St. George. And I didn't realize how good I had that until I started talking to other teachers that were feeling like they were floundering out there. —Suzanne Beasterfield #TeacherRetention Click To Tweet

So you’re currently a Clinical Assistant Professor at Idaho State University. Could you tell us a little bit about it? (01:43 – 01:52)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Sure. ISU, the main campus is in Pocatello, Idaho. That is about two hours north of Salt Lake City. It’s about two hours from the west entrance of Yellowstone Park. That’s where we are. We serve a lot of college students in the Southeastern part of the state. Our program certifies people for early childhood through 12th grade in all subjects. We’re not a huge program, but we’re mighty in our small numbers and where I’m working right now, our big push is to help people in rural areas to have access to a college education without necessarily having to move to a college town like Pocatello. (01:53 – 02:42)

Interesting. What have you been doing in order to make that possible? (02:43 – 02:47)

Suzanne Beasterfield: They are looking into everything. So we have outreach campuses, so we have two full-time faculty in Twin Falls because that’s an area that really needs teachers and we’ve worked on putting things online and doing things that are more personal than some of the impersonal online classes. So what are ways that we can still connect people and do that human connection that we all love in classrooms? And so we’re trying different things. We have rural schools initiatives. We’re working on how do we partner with those schools. And anything we can right now we’re trying it. (02:48 – 03:23)

A Pilot Study in Teacher Retention

Now, Suzanne, I’m particularly interested in your research on teacher retention. I noticed that you recently presented a paper ATE and it was entitled, “Why We Stay: A Study of Teacher Retention.” Can you explain to me how you set up the study: who participated, the time frame, the methods? (03:24 – 03:41)

Suzanne Beasterfield: You bet. So that was a pilot study to get started on some research that we wanted to do on teacher retention. We know that we lose most people who certify in teaching. I think it’s something like 75% within five years and that’s unfortunate. That’s very unfortunate. (03:42 – 04:02)

And there are various reasons for it. Some people leave the profession temporarily and they come back. Women who want to have children and come back or things like that. But it’s still not a good number. So what is it that’s making people leave? And I noticed on social media a lot of chatter about disgruntled former teachers writing manifestos about why they had to leave the profession, this kind of thing. And although those are useful and they definitely need to be able to air those grievances, I wanted to know, well, there are some people who are still there and they had the same pressures and problems that these teachers had. Why aren’t they leaving? (04:03 – 04:42)

I wanted to know, well, there are some teachers who are still there and they've had the same pressures and problems. Why aren't they leaving the profession? —Suzanne Beasterfield #TeacherRetention Click To Tweet

And I thought that would be a different perspective in a way that we could look at teaching. So I started out by snowball sampling, asking for teachers who are interested in participating. Did they know other people who would be? I ended up with 25 teachers that I interviewed. I did it in a number of ways because like I say, this was a pilot to decide what would be the best way to go about this. So I did a couple of group interviews at their schools. I did some one-on-one. I had some volunteers who were cross-country and so we used Marco Polo, the app to talk to them. And this was narrative. Tell me your stories about teaching. Tell me. (04:43 – 05:25)

We started with everybody made a timeline of when they first decided to teach and then what were the deviations from their path and what led them to where they are now and what were possible places when they could have left the profession. Then I went back in the interviews and said, “Okay, on your timeline you’ve said that your third year of teaching you almost left. What happened? Why didn’t you leave? Why are you still here?” And then focusing in on those stories and then analyzing the stories for the different themes and issues that I found there. (05:26 – 05:53).

Were all the 25 candidates throughout the United States or were they mostly in Idaho? (05:54 – 06:00)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Throughout the United States. I would say about half of them were from Idaho. I had people in Virginia, North Carolina, Utah, a couple from in the Midwest. So spread out. About half were local because that was for convenience. (06:01 – 06:16)

Suzanne’s Findings

And what were your findings with this pilot? (06:17)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Well, the things that surprised me, I think one of them was just how important administrators are. I suppose that we sort of intuitively know that. So it was like administrators are like housework, nobody notices unless it’s not there. And so if they had good administrators then that was fine, they didn’t mention them, but bad administrators were something that, that was a trial they had to overcome. That was the part of the story of this bad principal or this whatever. Or on the contrary, difficult year, things going on but they had this fantastic administrator. So those were pretty frequent. (06:21 – 07:04)

Also, the self-efficacy was such a big theme. So this idea that I realized I was good at this and even though this is hard and there’s all this paperwork and low status in the profession, I’m good at this, I’m making a difference. It matters. And if they had that self-efficacy and that feeling that they had some control, they were more willing to stay. So those are two of the big themes. (07:05 – 07:27)

Self-efficacy was such a big theme. If they had that self-efficacy and that feeling that they had some control, teachers were more willing to stay in the profession. —Suzanne Beasterfield #TeacherRetention Click To Tweet

What were some of the other common findings that you found besides self-efficacy and administrators? (07:28 – 07:36)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Any kind of human support. So their colleagues or a lot of them said, “I don’t think I could have done this if I didn’t have a supportive partner or spouse.” A lot of gratitude for colleagues and positive environments. And we know that there are some faculty rooms that are toxic and a lot of complaining and venting because people get frustrated and teachers are verbal and so they vent. But apparently, those faculty rooms where there’s a more positive feeling of we can do this together, let’s figure out how we can problem-solve. That made people who ultimately were happier. And one thing was, and I think this is related to self-efficacy, but this, there were tensions with autonomy. (07:37 – 08:22)

So the last 10 years or more where we’ve had all of this pressure with standardized testing and trying to take over failing schools and teacher-proof curriculum and all these things, it was extremely frustrating to these teachers and they feel like they’re not being trusted. And so if one of the big things to them about staying in the profession is I feel like I can make a difference than having politicians who don’t know anything about the realities of their day to day lives say “You need to do this differently.” It’s very frustrating and is definitely a way that we can drive away good people. And so that was, I mean, over and over again they were saying things like, “Now it’s my program. I get to do what I want. This is why I’m still here.” Or “I already know how to do that. I don’t need anyone else to show me.” Those kinds of things. So that autonomy and being able to do that was very important to them. (08:23 – 09:18)

Do you feel like from your findings you found anything that was localized maybe for Idaho or did you feel like you kept hearing the same thing from all over the United States? (09:19 – 09:29)

Suzanne Beasterfield: My biggest issue was I had a lot more women than men and I’d be interested in knowing how the men are different, but I think regionally not quite as much. This was interesting to me. I thought that my Idaho, Utah teachers in the west where we kind of have similar cultural backgrounds. I thought that those would be more similar than the ones outside and they actually weren’t. Another thing that I found was that teachers, whether they are, consider themselves spiritual or religious, many of them consider teaching a calling. They feel like it is their God-given duty to get in there and teach kids and it didn’t matter regionally where they were from or whether they are very religious Christian or Muslim or whatever. They still felt like they’re meant to be a teacher and in fact, I had some of them apologize like “I think this is kind of religious and I’m not religious but I just feel like I meant to do this.” And that was really interesting to me too that there’s just this conviction that they’re where they’re supposed to be and so why would you leave. (09:30 – 10:39)

Another thing that I found among teachers staying in the profession is, whether they consider themselves spiritual or religious, many of them consider teaching a calling.—Suzanne Beasterfield, #TeacherRetention Click To Tweet

Higher Education’s Role in Teacher Retention

What role do you think higher education should play in better preparing candidates to stick with teaching then? From all this research that you’ve done. (11:10 – 11:19)

Suzanne Beasterfield: My conclusion at the end of this was that we are thinking of ourselves wrong. I think sometimes we use war metaphors. They’re the ones in the trenches where, I don’t know what the teacher preparation is, the generals. But I think that’s the wrong metaphor. I think that I think now that we’re the pit crew and they’re the drivers and that what we need to do is something that, they’re busy and they’re out there and they’re the ones that are doing this work and so people at the university level need to be the ones saying, “Do they have what they need? Can we get it to them efficiently and quickly? What can we do to help them so that this next lap is better?” And I think if we position ourselves that way, we might change the professional development we give to practicing teachers for example, or the kinds of things we do to prepare pre-service teachers. (11:20 – 12:09)

Can you give some specific examples of how you think that would change? (12:10 – 12:13)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Yeah. I think that teacher educators need to keep a foot in classrooms. So there are a lot of really smart people who know a lot of really good theory and they haven’t set foot in a K-12 class in 20 years. Yes, it’s possible that they can give good things to new teachers but less likely. Because I started my teaching career in the mid-nineties and there’s a lot that’s different and I’m in classrooms a lot now. As part of my clinical position, I do a lot of supervision and it’s eyeopening and so I think they need to be in and know the realities of the classroom and they need to talk to teachers in terms of those realities and not in esoteric theories or big ideas, they need to be grounded in the realities of their day to day lives. (12:14 – 13:08)

Do you think supervisions are one of the best ways to have higher ed get their foot in the classroom again? (13:09 – 13:17)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Absolutely. Supervision or observation or even helping out. I’d love to see a full professor volunteer to help with reading centers in a first-grade classroom. So they can remember what that’s like and see how it’s different than when they were there. I think the kinds of supervision, so once in a while, we get people in our college that go out that haven’t been out for a while and they do some supervision and we have to remind them, “Okay, these are novices and these are the kinds of things that will be helpful.” And so, again, just grounding it in what’s actually happening in schools. (13:18 – 13:56)

Administrators and Teacher Retention

On the flip side, you’ve mentioned that you kept hearing about administrators being either a force for good or a force for bad with teacher retention. After doing all this research, what do you think the role should be of administrators in keeping teachers teaching? (13:57 – 14:16)

Suzanne Beasterfield: I think that they’re serving teachers rather than being in charge of them, rather than dictating things. I had a principal when I taught at Pine View High School in St. George. He’s, he’s retired now, David Broadhead, and he was in and out of classrooms. He would walk in my class and sit in the back and participate for five or 10 minutes and then leave. He knew what was going on, so if there was a problem, he had been in the class. He knew the kids. He was there quietly listening, getting information and not dictating things. Excellent, supportive, wonderful person. Too bad he’s retired. But that kind of thing where administrators, they don’t just appear for faculty meetings and for the kids who did something wrong, they should always be there and in the classrooms and know their teachers better than once a year evaluation. I think that would help. (14:17 – 15:12)

It’s interesting that your advice is actually the same for higher ed and for administrators, right? It’s getting them back into the classroom so they’re actually seeing what’s going on. (15:13 – 15:23)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Oh, I think so. Yeah. (15:24)

Gender Insights and Future Research

Are you going to continue your research in teacher retention? I know that you said this was the pilot to kind of set the foundation for further research, so what are you looking to do now? (15:26 – 15:36)

Suzanne Beasterfield: We’re looking as a department at especially teacher retention from our program so that we can improve our program. So that’s one thing, working with some colleagues on that. But yes, I would like to do this again and I would change it in a couple of ways. (15:37 – 15:57)

Definitely gender. Because I had mostly women and one of the themes that I didn’t talk about before was half of my respondents cried when they talked and I know this tends to be a gendered thing and that was very interesting to me though that you ask anybody in any other profession, “Why do you stay in your profession?” I don’t think they’re going to cry. I don’t think that it’s going to be this emotional thing. (15:58 – 16:29)

Okay, so another female-dominated profession would-be nurses. I don’t know that nurses would cry when they tell you why they continue to be a nurse. And so I was very interested. I thought, well, this could be just gender, but it might be, how then do the men express the same kind of emotions? I’m really interested in interviewing more male teachers because they tend to think of teaching as a stepping stone to administration or something else, or they are pressured into that. And so in general, anecdotally I can say that men are a little more defensive about why they’re still in the classroom because they feel that pressure to move on. You’re a man, shouldn’t you be a principal now or something? So I’d be very interested in how that plays out. (16:30 – 17:16)

The Magic Wand Question and Lightning Round

We like to ask all of our guests one question, and it is, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about teacher education in the United States, what would it be? (17:17 – 17:28)

Suzanne Beasterfield: I would make it much cheaper and with a lot more support, especially for non-traditional students who want to go into education. So I would make the pathway to becoming a teacher easier for them. (17:29 – 17:43)

At the end of all of our podcast episodes, we do a lightning round with our guests. So I’m going to ask you a series of questions and you just need to respond with a one-word to a one-sentence answer. Are you ready? (17:44 – 17:57)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Yes, ma’am. (17:58)

Favorite conference to attend? (17:59)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Right now, I would say that’s ATE, Association of Teacher Educators. (18:03 – 18:06)

Your most trusted teaching resource? (18:07)

Suzanne Beasterfield: I default back to Harry Wong’s First Days of School and his things on management. I love that. (18:11 – 18:17)

And the last song that you listened to? (18:18)

Suzanne Beasterfield: “The Fear” by The Score. (18:23)

You survived! Those are all the questions I have.

Well Suzanne, thank you so much for joining us on the Teacher Education Podcast. It’s really been insightful to hear about the different stories of why teachers continue to teach. And I think this is really informative for the administrators that will listen to this and to those in higher ed. So thank you so much for joining us. (18:26 – 18:50)

Suzanne Beasterfield: Thank you! It was fun. (18:51)

Conclusion

That’s it for today. Don’t forget to subscribe. If you like what you heard, please rate and review this podcast to help others find us. The Teacher Education Podcast is brought to you by GoReact. This episode was hosted by me, Hillary Gamblin and produced by Danielle Bert, Joseph Winter and Jordan Harris. Chad Jardine is our executive producer. Guests on the podcast are expressing personal opinions for informational purposes only. They’re not acting as official representatives for their universities or organizations.

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